The Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, 2016 was enacted to provide a time-bound process to resolve insolvency among companies and individuals. Insolvency is a situation where an individual or company is unable to repay their outstanding debt. Last month, the government promulgated the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code (Amendment) Ordinance, 2018 amending certain provisions of the Code. The Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code (Second Amendment) Bill, 2018, which replaces this Ordinance, was introduced in Lok Sabha last week and is scheduled to be passed in the ongoing monsoon session of Parliament. In light of this, we discuss some of the changes being proposed under the Bill and possible implications of such changes.
What was the need for amending the Code?
In November 2017, the Insolvency Law Committee was set up to review the Code, identify issues in its implementation, and suggest changes. The Committee submitted its report in March 2018. It made several recommendations, such as treating allottees under a real estate project as financial creditors, exempting micro, small and medium enterprises from certain provisions of the Code, reducing voting thresholds of the committee of creditors, among others. Subsequently, the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code (Amendment) Ordinance, 2018, was promulgated on June 6, 2018, incorporating these recommendations.
What amendments have been proposed regarding real estate allottees?
The Code defines a financial creditor as anyone who has extended any kind of loan or financial credit to the debtor. The Bill clarifies that an allottee under a real estate project (a buyer of an under-construction residential or commercial property) will be considered as a financial creditor. These allottees will be represented on the committee of creditors by an authorised representative who will vote on their behalf.
This committee is responsible for taking key decisions related to the resolution process, such as appointing the resolution professional, and approving the resolution plan to be submitted to the National Company Law Tribunal (NCLT). It also implies that real estate allottees can initiate a corporate insolvency resolution process against the debtor.
Can the amount raised by real estate allottees be considered as financial debt?
The Insolvency Law Committee (2017) had noted that the amount paid by allottees under a real estate project is a means of raising finance for the project, and hence would classify as financial debt. It had also noted that, in certain cases, allottees provide more money towards a real estate project than banks. The Bill provides that the amount raised from allottees during the sale of a real estate project would have the commercial effect of a borrowing, and therefore be considered as a financial debt for the real estate company (or the debtor).
However, it may be argued that the money raised from allottees under a real estate project is an advance payment for a future asset (or the property allotted to them). It is not an explicit loan given to the developer against receipt of interest, or similar consideration for the time value of money, and therefore may not qualify as financial debt.
Do the amendments affect the priority of real estate allottees in the waterfall under liquidation?
During the corporate insolvency resolution process, a committee of creditors (comprising of all financial creditors) may choose to: (i) resolve the debtor company, or (ii) liquidate (sell) the debtor’s assets to repay loans. If no decision is made by the committee within the prescribed time period, the debtor’s assets are liquidated to repay the debt. In case of liquidation, secured creditors are paid first after payment of the resolution fees and other resolution costs. Secured creditors are those whose loans are backed by collateral (security). This is followed by payment of employee wages, and then payment to all the unsecured creditors.
While the Bill classifies allottees as financial creditors, it does not specify whether they would be treated as secured or unsecured creditors. Therefore, their position in the order of priority is not clear.
What amendments have been proposed regarding Micro, Small, and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs)?
Earlier this year, the Code was amended to prohibit certain persons from submitting a resolution plan. These include: (i) wilful defaulters, (ii) promoters or management of the company if it has an outstanding non-performing asset (NPA) for over a year, and (iii) disqualified directors, among others. Further, it barred the sale of property of a defaulter to such persons during liquidation. One of the concerns raised was that in case of some MSMEs, the promoter may be the only person submitting a plan to revive the company. In such cases, the defaulting firm will go into liquidation even if there could have been a viable resolution plan.
The Bill amends the criteria which prohibits certain persons from submitting a resolution plan. For example, the Code prohibits a person from being a resolution applicant if his account has been identified as a NPA for more than a year. The Bill provides that this criterion will not apply if such an applicant is a financial entity, and is not a related party to the debtor (with certain exceptions). Further, if the NPA was acquired under a resolution plan under this Code, then this criterion will not apply for a period of three years (instead of one). Secondly, the Code also bars a guarantor of a defaulter from being an applicant. The Bill specifies that such a bar will apply if such guarantee has been invoked by the creditor and remains unpaid.
In addition to amending these criteria, the Bill also states that the ineligibility criteria for resolution applicants regarding NPAs and guarantors will not be applicable to persons applying for resolution of MSMEs. The central government may, in public interest, modify or remove other provisions of the Code while applying them to MSMEs.
What are some of the other key changes being proposed?
The Bill also makes certain changes to the procedures under the Code. Under the Code, all decisions of the committee of creditors have to be taken by a 75% majority of the financial creditors. The Bill lowers this threshold to 51%. For certain key decisions, such as appointment of a resolution professional, approving the resolution plan, and making structural changes to the company, the voting threshold has been reduced from 75% to 66%.
The Bill also provides for withdrawal of a resolution application, after the resolution process has been initiated with the NCLT. Such withdrawal will have to be approved by a 90% vote of the committee of creditors.
Tribunals function as a parallel mechanism to the traditional court system. Tribunals were established for two main reasons - allowing for specialised subject knowledge in disputes on technical matters and reducing the burden on the court system. In India, some tribunals are at the level of subordinate courts with appeals lying with the High Court, while some others are at the level of High Courts with appeals lying with the Supreme Court. In 1986, the Supreme Court ruled that Parliament may create an alternative to High Courts provided that they have the same efficacy as the High Courts. For an overview of the tribunal system in India, see our note here.
In April 2021, the central government promulgated an Ordinance, which specified provisions related to the composition of the search-cum-selection committees for the selection of members of 15 Tribunals, and the term of office for members. Further, it empowered the central government to notify qualifications and other terms and conditions of service (such as salaries) for the Chairperson and members of these tribunals. In July 2021, the Supreme Court struck down certain provisions of the Ordinance (such as the provision specifying a four-year term for members) stating that these impinged on the independence of the judiciary from the government. In several earlier judgements, the Supreme Court has laid out guidelines for the composition of Tribunals and service conditions to ensure that these Tribunals have the same level of independence from the Executive as the High Courts they replace.
However, Parliament passed the Tribunals Reforms Bill, 2021 in August 2021, which is almost identical to the April Ordinance and includes the provisions which had been struck down. This Act has been challenged in the Supreme Court. For a PRS analysis of the Bill, please see here.
On 16th September 2021, the central government notified The Tribunal (Conditions of Service) Rules, 2021 under the Tribunals Reforms Act, 2021. A couple of the provisions under these Rules may contravene principles laid out by the Supreme Court:
Appointment of the Administrative Member of the Central Administrative Tribunal as the Chairman
In case of the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT), the Rules specify that a person with at least three years of experience as the Judicial Member or Administrative Member may be appointed as the Chairman. This may violate the principles laid down by the past Supreme Court judgements.
The CAT supplants High Courts. In 1986, the Supreme Court stated that if an administrative tribunal supplants the High Courts, the office of the Chairman of the tribunal should be equated with that of the Chief Justice of the High Court. Therefore, the Chairman of the tribunal must be a current or former High Court Judge. Further, in 2019, the Supreme Court stated – “the knowledge, training, and experience of members or presiding officers of a tribunal must mirror, as far as possible, that of the Court it seeks to substitute”.
The Administrative Member of the CAT may be a person who has been an Additional Secretary to the central government or a central government officer with pay at least that of the Additional Secretary. Hence, the Administrative Member may not have the required judicial experience for appointment as the Chairman of CAT.
Leave Sanctioning Authority
The Rules specify that the central government will be the leave sanctioning authority for the Chairperson of tribunals, and Members (in case of absence of the Chairperson). In 2014, the Supreme Court specified that the central government (Executive) should not have any administrative involvement with the members of the tribunal as it may influence the independence and fairness of the tribunal members. In addition, it had observed that the Executive may be a litigant party and its involvement in administrative matters of tribunals may influence the fairness of the adjudication process. In judgements in 1997 and 2014, the Supreme Court recommended that the administration of all Tribunals should be under a nodal ministry such as the Law Ministry, and not the respective administrative ministry. In 2020, it recommended setting up of a National Tribunals Commission to supervise appointments and administration of Tribunals. The Rules are not in consonance with these recommendations.